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Alberta election: Will no one think of the children 2012

June 30, 2017


Alberta Election: Will no one think of the children?

Paula Simons, Edmonton JournalPAULA SIMONS, EDMONTON JOURNAL
More from Paula Simons, Edmonton Journal
Published on: April 12, 2012 | Last Updated: April 12, 2012 2:21 PM MDT

Cynical reporters – and really, there are no other kind – often laugh at politicians or community activists who fear-monger about the impact of various policy decisions on our kids.
“Will no one thing of the children?” we say to each other, in mocking tones, when people try to play the kiddie card to score political points.

But today, I actually want to ask the question in earnest myself. And not, I hope, in a cynical move to pluck your heart-strings.

On Wednesday, I took a “break” from covering the Alberta election campaign, to attend the sentencing of a young Metis woman, convicted of manslaughter in the death of her four-year-old niece. (To read Ryan Cormier’s story on the sentencing, click here. To read my own column on the tragic conclusion to this tragic affair, click right here.)

Due to the censorship of Alberta’s Child, Youth, and Family Enhancement Act, I can name neither the little girl, nor the aunt. The girl’s identity is forever hidden, even in death, because she was a foster child. The aunt’s name is hidden because to name her might identify the child, for whom she served as guardian.

I’ve been investigating this story, ever since the girl died in early 2009. (To read one of my first stories on the case, written with an assist from my colleague Elise Stolte, please do click here. It will provide you with a tremendous amount of background and context. )

Three years later, the aunt who struck the fatal blows has been found guilty and sentenced. But we’re still no closer to fixing the catastrophic failures of our child welfare system, the system that thought it was a good idea to place SIX neuro-compromised chidlren under the age of six in the care of a homeless young woman who had addiction issues and no parenting experience, all in the name of cultural sensitivity.

Obviously, we don’t want to re-create the world of residential schools, where we scooped up aboriginal children, willy-nilly, in the name of “saving” them, and sent them to boarding schools where they were stripped of their language, religion and culture, and often physically and sexually abused, into the bargain.

But leaving children in unsafe family situations is no solution, either.
Earlier this week, I asked all five of the major political parties in this election to respond to this story, and to the issues it raises. I had no response from either the Alberta Liberal or the New Democrats. The Wildrose Party sent me an excerpt from their policy book:

“Caseload management needs to be reviewed to ensure social workers are not

overburdened,” it reads.

“The cultural needs of First Nations, Inuit and Métis children are of

particular importance when intervening through use of residential care.

There needs to be a clear direction and mandate that allows all aboriginal

children to stay connected with their families and their communities.

Connection may take diverse forms and will be assessed and determined based

on the individual needs of the child and the input, expertise and knowledge

of the First Nation, Inuit and Métis people.”

That’s nicely libertarian and culturally sensitive. But, ironically, in this case, the Wildrose may be guilty of too much political correctness. A concern for family and cultural connection is admirable – but not at the expense of keeping children safe.

The Progressive Conservatives have a long and dismal track record on this file. But when I spoke with PC campaign spokesman Stephen Carter on Wednesday, he said that Alison Redford is very interested in changing the way we deliver foster care in this province – to move away from the 1950s volunteer model, towards a more professional system, where foster parents would be paid for the work they do.

“She’s comfortable with the professionalization of foster families, with giving them the training and the support they need, and then holding them accountable as professionals,” Carter told me.

Carter said the party is also committed to improving early intervention services to help keep families at risk coping and together. But, Carter acknowledged, aboriginal child welfare is such a touchy, politically sensitive issue, no party wants to make it part of their campaign strategy, or bring it up as a central election issue.

“It’s tricky,” he says, of tackling the aboriginal child welfare crisis. “It’s tough to do. It’s easy to talk about, but it’s hard to do.”

Actually, Carter’s only half-right. It isn’t easy to talk about our aboriginal child welfare crisis. That’s why no party wants to. It’s the unwelcome elephant in the room. But this is an issue that every party should be thinking about. Our child welfare system is overloaded, we don’t have enough foster homes to cope, and children in care are dying at a disturbing rate. In Edmonton, more than 70 per cent of the kids in care are aboriginal – which is stunning, given that aboriginal people make up less than 10 per cent of the population of the city.

But it isn’t just our child welfare system that’s breaking under the strain. Our schools and our teachers struggle to cope with teaching kids who come from transient, troubled families, kids who arrive in kindergarten without adequate language and social skills, kids who come to class hungry. Often, aboriginal children thrive in elementary school, where they get more individualized attention, but then lose their way when they hit junior high school. Our aboriginal high school completion rates are dismal enough – but they are artificially inflated, since they only count the kids who enroll in high school, and relatively few First Nations and Metis students even make it through grade 9.

And when those kids grow up, it’s our health care system, and our criminal justice system, that bear the consequences of our child welfare failures.

Want to lower education costs, health care costs, law enforcement costs? Investing in aboriginal children and families would be a prudent, yet visionary, place to start.

The only party leader who was eager to speak to me about this vexing subject was Glenn Taylor, of the Alberta Party.

Taylor’s wife Donna is Metis – part of what Taylor calls a large and robust aboriginal family. Taylor’s wife was actually a successful product of kinship care. She was adopted as a young child, by extended family. Her adoptive father, Taylor’s 82-year-old father-in-law is a Status Treaty Indian, and a residential school survivor. His mother-in-law is Metis.

Yet despite his in-law’s painful residential school experiences, despite his wife’s own successful adoption by family members, Taylor has seen enough disasters to be deeply skeptical of the ideology of kinship care.

”We need a much stronger screening process, and much more support,” he says.

“It makes a lot of sense that we try to put foster children from broken families in homes that respect their First Nations or Metis heritage, but that cannot be our only consideration. Too often, in our haste to place the child, we’re not looking at the family situation. It’s too easy to just immediately place them with another family member. We have to look beyond just placing children with family, to what’s in the best interest of the child. We need to respect and understand cultural sensitivity, but not at the expense of the child’s safety.”

Taylor says front line social workers aren’t able to keep up with the scale of the crisis.

“The case load is unbelievable, the workload is insurmountable and then we blame them,” he says. “This problem is unbelievably huge in the aboriginal community, and the further north you go, the worse it gets. It’s something that we sweep under the carpet, and we shouldn’t. It just goes around and around, and it’s generational.”

“How do we not look beyond what’s expedient, to what’s right?”

Taylor and his upstart party haven’t been able to get a lot of traction in this election. A few individual Alberta Party candidates are running solid, competitive campaigns in a handful of ridings, but Taylor, as leader, hasn’t been able to make a strong impression on voters. He’s not been invited to take part in tonight’s leaders debate.

(I understand why a party standing at 2% in the polls, with no elected members, isn’t represented. But I’m still rather disappointed. At the Edmonton Journal’s recent health care pre-election forum, Taylor distinguished himself as the wittiest debater, with the cleverest comebacks. His humour, and his good humour, might have been a welcome counter-balance.)

But perhaps, having nothing to lose gives Taylor a little more freedom to speak to one of the most important, most ignored, most politically difficult challenges facing our province. Here’s hoping he keeps it up. We might not hear his voice in Thursday’s TV debate. But we need more voices speaking with passion, courage, and knowledge on the topic few politicians have the gumption to address.


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